The more I work through my dissertation on 1 Corinthians, the more I am struck by a simple premise that explains roughly half of Paul’s discursive style in the non-Pastorals: Paul is a philosopher of sorts. Certainly, such an idea might appear to be an error prima facie. Even Troels Engberg-Pedersen, who has advocated for interpreting Paul in light of Stoicism, does not go so far as to say that Paul is a philosopher. However, the more I study 1 Corinthians, the more I am left with this basic feeling: the problems of the Corinthians seeing Paul and Apollos as competitive teachers of wisdom cannot be well accounted for if Paul did not, at least in some form, act like philosophers were expected to act in the day.
But this thesis bears clarification by first answering the question: what is a philosopher? While we all seem to have our images of what a “philosopher” is, there are not necessarily the same thing. For some, being a philosopher is to be engaged in the study of philosophy; a philosopher reads people like the ancient philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle and the more recent philosophers like Nietzsche or Heidegger, etc. in the continental tradition or Russell and Ryle in the analytic tradition. This definition of a philosopher is largely defined by the study of a particular domain of thinking that is known as philosophy. However, this definition isn’t perfect. For instance, the philosophers of science such as Kuhn, Popper, Lakatos, etc. studied primarily the practice and thinking that occurs in science and formulated ideas about the field.
So, maybe we can define philosophy as a field that studies thinking in its various forms. This gets closer to the image we might get when we think of an academic philosopher, who studies ideas and the logical consequences of those ideas. But yet, this definition of a philosopher doesn’t quite work either unless we add an explicit qualification of being professional. For instance, two friends in conversation in a coffee shop (guess where I am at as I write this!) may talk about the way to approach relationship issues and one of them gives advice based upon some overarching principles about how they think relationships work and the other says “You are quite the philosopher.” While such designation is not serious in terms of defining an occupation, that it can be used to describe someone who thinks deeply about how they approach various life circumstances means that being a philosopher isn’t necessarily about precise logical analysis of abstract systems of beliefs and propositions.
It is in this last sense of the usage of “philosopher” that is closest to what I am meaning when I describe Paul as a philosopher. While philosophy from the Presocratics through to Socrates and up to the Hellenistic period had largely preoccupied itself with more “theoretical” ideas about the world and its constitution, from the Hellenistic period into the Roman era, philosophy took a turn towards focusing on ethical matters. As Europe had increasingly integrated various peoples and cultures towards political integration through the processes of regionalization that Alexander the Great’s empire and then the Roman empire created, the various structures of meaning and norms would begin to break down. Concomitant with that would have been an increase in anxiety about one’s life and place in the world, especially in light of the more familiar local governance that people were closely connected to being replaced by imperial governance and its system of laws that were ultimately enforced by penal and military power. How one is to live in such a context would become highly imperative to determine. Epicurus’ philosophy based upon finding happiness, far the hedonist that Epicurus is caricatured to be, was trying to promote a way of thinking that avoided the anxieties and features that come from the reality of death and the consequences of impulsive, hedonistic behavior. The 1st century AD Roman Stoics of Seneca and Epictetus gave a lot of time discussing ethical matters of how to live within the various circumstances of life. While certainly there were some ‘philosophers’ who had a fascination with the more abstract and logical matters of philosophy, these were regarded as misleading people and a charade; philosophy was practical and it addressed the anxieties that people faced in life.
Philosophers in Paul’s day were helping people to deal with the realities of life: to that end, they are closer to our modern day therapists than our image of philosophers in the modern day. Now, to be clear, this comparison isn’t perfect. Philosophers were expected to have a knowledge of logic and reasoning, although therapists and counselors who employ cognitive techniques may have some basic understanding of reasoning themselves. Philosophers also had certain ontological views on the way the world is and certain definitions of virtue that helped them to determine the norms for how one should learn to adapt in the world, whereas modern-day therapists typically allow for the client’s own values and norms to determine how to adapt. Philosophers also didn’t delve deep into consciousness, but their therapy typically focused on finding the errors of reasoning. Finally, philosophers didn’t do talk therapy like we do today. They may instruct classes in how to think, but their ‘therapy’ wasn’t typically personalized to a single client. Nevertheless, with these qualifications in mind, the goals of the philosopher in Paul’s day were closer to the goals of modern therapists: to help people to live and adapt in the world in a way that maximizes their well-being. Philosophy in the Apostle Paul’s world was more concerned about therapeutic and ethical interests rather than with logic and abstract propositions.
To that end, I would contend that it is best to understand part of Paul’s discourse in his letters as most aptly described as a form of philosophical discourse. Paul engages with Christians across the Roman empire on various matters such as how to live in the face of suffering (Romans 5.1-5), how to become virtuous/righteous by being conformed to Christ through the Spirit (Romans 6, 8). In addressing matters of marriage, he provides practical advice that should impact one’s decision on whether to marry or not (1 Cor. 7). Rather than seeking for one’s own benefit in matters of eating meat, Paul instructs in how one should seek other people’s interest above one’s own due to its association with idolatrous temples (1 Cor 10.23-11.1). Rather than judging each other based upon the appearances of the flesh, one should consider looking at each other in terms of the new creation being created in them (2 Cor. 5.16-17). Paul instructs the Galatians in how to live out their freedom that they have been given in Christ by living by the Spirit rather than the flesh (Gal. 5). Rather than letting anxiety reign, Paul advocates engaging God in prayer and focusing on the good in life (Philippians 4.4-9). The list goes on and on.
Moral instruction was not unique to philosophers, as the Pharisees themselves engaged moral instruction insofar as the Tannaim represents the Pharisees form of ethical thinking and instruction. However, once Paul moved away from a Pharisaical life where righteousness was derived from the interpretation and application of Torah, he could not employ the same style of ethical guidance as his ethical instruction was based upon the power of God at work in the love of Christ to demonstrate what God’s righteousness was ultimately about. The shape of Paul’s ethical reasoning becomes more narrative-driven rather than being based upon a hermeneutical approach to the Old Testament Scriptures. To that end, he shares much more common with the ancient philosophers, who would regularly make use of their mythical and philosophical stories of figures like Odysseus and Socrates as ethical narratives to guide their own behavior. Nevertheless, Paul also does not do philosophy the way that they philosopher did it, at it is the person of Christ who makes known the shape of God’s redemption and the nature of human life rather than simply serves as an example of some noble or lofty ideals.
Furthermore, Paul was a philosopher only in a constrained sense. His vocation was as an apostle who proclaimed the story of God’s redemption of humanity in the death and resurrection of Jesus as foretold in the Jewish Scriptures. To whatever degree Paul was capable of philosophical thinking and speech, it did not define his apostolic proclamation (1 Cor. 2.1-5). He primary saw himself as God’s ambassador, empowered by the Spirit to speak to and, through the Spirit, demonstrate the nature of God’s in-breaking love into the world. To that end, his wisdom was more defined by what he did in laying the foundation of Christ down (1 Cor. 3.10-11) than any wisdom exhibited in the form of philosophical discourse. However, Paul could speak in more of a philosophical manner (1 Cor 2.6-16) but even this was due to the inspiration of the Spirit to make known what cannot be known through the normal modes of philosophy in observation, learning, and reasoning (1 Cor. 2.9).
As a consequence, what defined Paul’s philosophical thinking from that of his nearest contemporaries, the Stoics, is that God’s wisdom is unknowable except through specific acts of revelation and that God’s wisdom isn’t based upon the way of the current order of the world, but how God is transforming the cosmos by Christ and through the Spirit to bring about a new creation that is eroding the order of the present age. As such, Paul’s philosophical thinking is more eschatological, if not even apocalyptic in a sense, that persistently relies upon the direction and inspiration of the Spirit for a person through faith to be intellectually and ethically be formed into the ultimate eschatological pattern that Jesus Christ is the source of and first visible appearance of.
Paul is firstly an apostle whose primary task is to proclaim the story of the resurrected Messiah to the Gentiles. However, in guiding the Christian communities he was responsible for teaching and in engaging with the conflicts with other outsider teachers who were leading them astray from the Gospel, Paul could engage in a form of thinking and discourse that closely resembles philosophical discourse in terms of style of instruction and its goals, although radically different in the presuppositions that determine the shape of the philosophical reasoning in taking the narrative of Jesus Christ as constitutive for the content of his philosophical thinking.